Re: S&S, Ch 31: A Letter from Colonel Brandon to Mrs Dashwood
September 5, 1999
I am moved when I read this chapter. It comes out of memory -- the memory of the personated character reflecting back as he speaks to an imagined presence. I find the language given Colonel Brandon sufficiently emotional and eloquent to overcome the awkward technique of the long first-person narrative (which probably represents what was once a letter). The story is itself utterly subjective and open to all sorts of interpretations. This is epistolarity.
On the Colonel's present feelings or memories of Eliza Williams, I take his comment to refer to what happened to her after marriage. She did run away with another man, and then descended to move from man to man and finally to the streets. What is suggested in his earlier comment that Elinor should not wish the kind of young woman Marianne represents, one who can endow illusions with an imaginative intensity that is rare, to be disillusioned. The result can be supreme self-destructiveness, anger, and all sorts of behavior that others can't understand and accept. I think that is what is suggested happened to Eliza Williams. When the Colonel returned from India, she had become a very different person than she had been.
His disappointment -- or lack of compassion and understanding for Eliza -- might disappoint us, but here we are also to remember the attitude towards sex outside marriage that governed the time. As bullying to coerce men into violent duels was acceptable, so the idea a woman's honor resided in her vagina prevailed. The chivalrous ideal has its dark and mean sides.
Nancy Mayer wrote:
'I think the awkward part here is having the Colonel tell it to Elinor himself ... The whole conversation would have been better directed to Mrs. Dashwood ...'
I am interested in that last sentence. Late in the book we are told Colonel Brandon and Mrs Dashwood write to one another regularly, e.g.,
'"When do you write to Colonel Brandon, ma'am?" was an enquiry which sprung from the impatience of her mind to have something going on. "I wrote to him, my love, last week, and rather expect to see than to hear from him again. I earnestly pressed his coming to us, and should not be surprised to see him walk in to-day, or to-morrow, or any day"' (Penguin S&S, ed RBallaster, III:12 or Ch 48, p. 303).
We are given the above and other brief details from this otherwise unreferred-to regular correspondence in the book.
Chapter 31 itself has a number of lines which are characteristic and typical of epistolary narratives of the period. Most of them are there to suggest verisimilitude. For example,
'but this will give you no idea -- I must go farther back. You will find me a very awkward narrator, Miss Dashwood; I hardly know where to begin. A short account of myself, I believe, will be necessary, and it shall be a short one. On such a subject," sighing heavily, "I can have little temptation to be diffuse"' (I:9, Ch 31, 173);
'but how blindly I relate! I have never told you how this was brought on. We were within a few hours of eloping together for Scotland. The treachery, or the folly, of my cousin's maid betrayed us' (I:9, Ch 31, p. 174).
These are ways of introducing previous history -- a flashback -- without having to drag out corny lines like: now I will tell you my history. In the first we see Austen intensely aware of how unreal such a letter might seem unless objections to length are first obviated by bringing them forward and denying them by the letter-writer.
Throughout Brandon's narrative, he excuses himself, talks about how disjoined is his tale, but if we look we find it is not disjointed at all. Even the kinds of phrases in italics are common -- ways of signalling stronger tones.
In my paper on A Calendar for 'S&S' I made no attempt to speculate who would have been the correspondents in the previous letter novel, only relying on showing the extensive consistent 37 year calendar which undergirds the novel, the uses of parallel ironies, stories, and many mentions of correspondences going on between the various characters. This because all of this is there and not speculation. Once we go beyond the extant vestiges (such as Margaret), and obvious first-person narratives slipped in (Mrs Jennings's, John Dashwood's and Nancy Steele's late in the book, Brandon's and Willoughby's histories), we are into speculation. However, the common reader's first question has often been who could they have been writing these letters to. Many answers have been given in the case of Elinor and Marianne.
Well now I think of it, it seems to me that Chapter 31 might just probably have been a letter by Colonel Brandon to his good friend and contemporary (in age) Mrs Dashwood. I think he was one of Mrs Jennings's correspondents and they are old friends. My view is she was a major writer in the comic parts of the novel -- as with the Juvenilia, Austen used letters for satiric exposure. This would have been the case with Marianne in the earlier parts of the book. Mrs Dashwood is the kind of character who stays put: she never goes anywhere and is the confiding kind of person who people will pour their hearts out to. There's even a lovely if cliched phrase in French for the type character:
Vous êtes le point où j'aime à me reposer dans l'inquiétude qui m'égare, où j'aime à revenir lorsque j'ai parcouru toutes choses'
Such calm characters, the still turning points of the narrative, provide the interior space for the harried characters to enter into to escape their adventures for a while. And, what more natural than for Brandon to tell the mother of this girl the previous history of Willoughby?
This telling of bad sides of a rival goes on elsewhere in Austen, e.g, Fanny tells Edmund truths about Mary after Edmund's last visit to London persuades him how hollow and shallow she is really is. I suggest for Austen such a procedure was justified. Austen would have been impressed that neither Brandon nor Fanny told these truths before the lover was brought to see on his or her own that their desired one was unworthy. In fact many a modern reader might think it incredible that Brandon would have withheld such a truth and allowed Willoughby to marry Marianne without Marianne having heard of this ruthless appalling behavior to Eliza Williams.
But that's not my main point: it is to suggest that this letter by Brandon was originally addressed to Mrs Dashwood. Brandon would have written it from London after Willoughby wrote his replies (dictated by Sophia) to Marianne. Mrs Dashwood would have received it in Dorsetshire and we would have read Brandon's letter after we read Elinor's to her mother telling her mother what happened at the party and afterwards (II:6-7, Chs 28-29).